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What People Are Saying About That MLA Report on the Ph.D.

Well, what do you know? When the Modern Language Association releases a big report on how to remake the language-and-literature Ph.D., it provokes strong opinions. Lots of strong opinions.

By this point, you’ve probably read parts of the report itself. If so, you’re likely not surprised by urgency of the task force that put the document together. “We are faced,” the report states, “with an unsustainable reality: a median time to degree of around nine years for language and literature doctoral recipients and a long-term academic job market that provides tenure-track employment for only around 60 percent of doctorate recipients.”

How to right the ship? The MLA’s proposals hit on a few key themes—cut the time it takes to get a degree (and if that means truncating or rethinking the dissertation, then more’s the better), do a better job of routing Ph.D.'s to quality jobs outside the tenure track, and embrace digital scholarship.

And that’s where the fun begins: Nobody argues with the whole humanities-in-crisis thing, but everyone has their own take on what’s to be done about it. Here’s a quick tour of the topics drawing the most debate.

1. “Wait a second, who’s this task force, anyway?”

Rebecca Schuman:
The Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature was compiled by sending seven tenured professors (over half of whom hold some sort of fancy endowed title) and one “alt-ac” museum executive to talk to “directors of graduate studies, department chairs, and other adminis­trators; graduate students; employers outside the academy; and the membership at large.” The first thing to note about the Task Force’s methodology is that the group largely avoided talking to the very people most affected by the abject cratering in humanities jobs in the past decade: adjuncts.

“Minnesotan,” commenting at The Chronicle:
What does a Stanford professor know about the economic or political realities of adjunct labor and grad students who feel they have no prospects? Put some people in the trenches in charge and you'll see some more thoughtful suggestions based on lived circumstances, not disconnected aristoprofs who got their jobs not by going on this overwhelmingly broken job market, but by way of a letter of introduction from their advisor in 1962.

Karen Kelsky:
Seriously? WTF? Send a bunch of endowed full profs out to investigate a “crisis” from which they've been basically immune? Would you accept such shoddy methodology from your Ph.D. students?

Rob Townsend:

2. “The big issue here is jobs—or is it?”

From the MLA Report (page 5):
As highly educated professionals, recipients of the Ph.D. find employment; they are not typically part of the long-term unemployed. It has long been the case, however, that not all recipients of Ph.D.’s in modern languages and literatures find tenure- track positions, and the significant shrinking of the job market for tenure-track employment after 2008 has exacerbated this situation.

Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker:
The core of the problem is, of course, the job market. … In all likelihood, the number of jobs per candidate is much smaller than the report suggests. That’s why the mood is so dire—why even professors are starting to ask, in the committee’s words, “Why maintain doctoral study in the modern languages and literatures—or the rest of the humanities—at all?”

Paige Morgan:
The state of the academic job market affects confidence, too, as the Task Force clearly recognizes when it urges faculty to support graduate students who are exploring alternate career paths. But I am suspicious of the suggestion that the academic job market is the primary depressor of confidence that is making it difficult graduate students to write their dissertations, or that factors relating to the job market are the primary opportunity for intervention.

3. “Actually, the big issue is academic labor.”

From the MLA Report (page 6):
Our point is that the precarious economic circumstances of the large and increasing share of postsecondary faculty members working in contingent positions threatens the viability of the entire enterprise of doctoral study, as doctoral students face the ongoing deterioration of prospects for employment as full-time tenure-track professors. It is therefore in the interest of our fields to advocate vigorously both more tenure-track positions and improved working conditions for non-tenure-track faculty members.

Bennett Carpenter, quoted in The Chronicle:
In focusing on tweaks and ‘innovations’ rather than on labor conditions, the MLA task force thus misses the point. Alt-ac will not save us. The digital humanities will not save us. Only a concerted effort to transform the labor conditions of higher education can resolve the current crisis."

Aimée Morrison:

Gerry Cannavan:

Russell Berman, chair of the MLA task force, quoted in The Chronicle:
The MLA has a long history of being "very outspoken in advocating for improved working conditions for adjuncts," Mr. Berman said. "The MLA has done that, continues to do that, and this report reaffirms that in the context of discussing restructuring of doctoral programs."

4. “So if academic labor is a mess, what about other career options?“

From the MLA Report (page 12):
The profession must make a strong case to the public at large and especially to prospective employers that our doctoral programs prepare students for career paths throughout society, not only in higher education.

Rebecca Schuman:
WHAT THE @#$% IS THE POINT OF GETTING A DOCTORATE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE A PROFESSOR? The idea of getting a doctorate with the sole or primary purpose of going “alt-ac” is bananas. Do you think that museums and nonprofits and archives are all crying themselves to sleep at night wondering where the unrelated humanities Ph.D.’s are to fill the reams and reams of open positions they have?

Gerry Cannavan:

Benjamin Winterhalter, The Atlantic:
Isn’t it exactly this sort of hyper-competitive anti-logic that created the crisis of the humanities in the first place? Insistent warnings about the need for practicality—for sacrifices in the name of the job market—have filled students with a fearsome anxiety about their financial futures. Are you going to try and pay your electric bill with music, Susan?

5. “What does it mean to rethink the dissertation?”

From the MLA Report (page 14):
Departments should expand the spectrum of forms the dissertation may take. … Today alternative modes of scholarly communication challenge the priority of the dissertation as proto–print book; multimodal platforms for e-books are being developed that incorporate still images, audio, and moving images as well as interactive features and text.

Roger Whitson:
I think we are leaving out quite a bit if we, as a discipline, point to something unusual and say “that’s not English.” And I, for one, would rather let go of an archaic disciplinary apparatus that forced its researchers and students to stick with papers and books while indenturing them to years of underpaid labor, than see it preserved under any kind of revisionist historical fantasy. We need the MLA report because too many people assume they know better than researchers who are trying to do something exciting in this discipline.

“Eileen” at How Did We Get Into This Mess?
Regarding the dissertation, I think even for people aimed at the tenure track, something has to change. At least for history, the changes from dissertation to book that publishers demand are such that it doesn't make sense to me that a dissertation should be a 300-page near-monograph that has to be hacked into a book by tenure time or else—why not a much shorter, more intensive archival project, or something else that could be a foundation to a larger project?

James Pulizzi, The New Republic:
Among the suggestions was a plea for graduate students to learn more technical skills, such as text mining, data visualization, and other very non-humanistic sounding software tools. … But even while recommending that shift, they left in place the dissertation, or the production of a large research-based, book-length monograph. Alternative projects, especially collaborative ones, will likely never pass muster in the humanities as qualifying a graduate student for a Ph.D. And so, the legacy of print is questioned but remains largely untouched.

6. “Should time to degree really be shorter?”

From the MLA Report (page 15):
Departments should design programs that can be completed in five years from entry into a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree as the highest degree attained.

“Eris” at How Did We Get Into This Mess?
I would have loved to finish in five years, but I was a first-gen college student, single mother of two, and I was working on a very interdisciplinary topic, so six was the best I could do. I think grad school is an important time to learn how to be an academic, but it's not a real job and it's not the real world. I see little reason to spend more time than I did there.

Rebecca Schuman:
Ph.D.s being cranked out at a faster rate ... means MOAR PHDS, which is exactly 100% of the opposite of what any of us want or need, with the exception of faculty in Ph.D. programs, who want to preserve “accessibility” and “excellence.”

Paige Morgan:
Throughout the report, the phrase “departments should” appears 22 times… . My concern is with the framing of departments (which I read as “faculty”) acting to make these changes and graduate students reacting by finishing their degrees within five years. Implicitly, the changes come from the faculty and are directed at the graduate students.

The solution to this problem of framing is, in some ways, simple: faculty (and their departments) need to be engaging in open dialogue with their graduate students about the dissertation format and about the factors that are contributing to the length of time-to-degree. Let me phrase that more bluntly: departments need to listen to graduate students.

7. “What if we’re just giving out too many Ph.D.’s in the first place?”

From the MLA Report (page 18):
Departments should develop admissions practices and policies appropriate to the changing character of doctoral education and the broadened range of career opportunities.

Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker:
Only briefly does the report address what, to many people, is the most obvious solution: reducing admissions. … Professors in the humanities work hard to communicate the allure of their subjects; they are so good at it that, unless they bar the doors to graduate school, students will keep streaming in. And yet barring the doors is exactly what professors are least equipped to do. They’re also under the spell; that’s why they’re such good teachers. They love their subjects, and their students; they can’t accept that, by teaching too many students, they may be harming them. If that is the case, then to really respond to the crisis, they will have to do something unthinkable: turn good students away.

“Procrustes,” commenting at The Chronicle:
It is hardly surprising that the MLA, AHA, and faculty in doctoral programs argue against shrinking programs. Cui bono? Doctoral training is focused professional training for research in the discipline. All the alternative careers cited can be had with a master's degree that offers more appropriate training for them.

Werner Twertzog:

Russell Berman, chair of the MLA task force, quoted in The Chronicle:
The discourse of Ph.D. overproduction is wrong. What we need instead is a broadened understanding of career paths.

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